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Reform of the international drugs regime: what role for the peacebuilding community?

26 June 2015 - Thomas Wheeler, Tim Midgley

Today is World Drugs Day. With a global summit on drug policy fast approaching, the world is increasingly aware of the case for alternative approaches to the drugs control regime – seen by many as both insufficiently effective and excessively violent. In this article, we suggest bringing a people-focused peacebuilding perspective to the debate, and call for the policy alternatives to be considered in terms of their likely impact on violence.

26 June marks World Drugs Day, or to be more accurate the “International Day against Drug Abuse and Illicit Trafficking.” It’s appropriate since the illicit drugs market is a genuinely global phenomenon. As such, national efforts to manage the problems associated with drugs have been heavily influenced by international treaties seeking to address the fact that “laws in one country can affect drug price, availability and use in another country.”

In most part these treaties have sought to undermine international drug markets by criminalising all aspects of the trade and employing coercive law-enforcement techniques to prevent their production, sale and consumption. This approach relies on the twin assumptions that limiting the supply of illicit substances into the marketplace will drive up prices, whilst raising the personal costs associated with their use (for example by increasing the risk of being caught and the severity of punishment) will deter potential consumers from using drugs. Taken together, these approaches were intended to limit both the supply and demand for illicit drugs thereby shrinking the whole market. This approach appears to have had some successes. For example, overall consumption of illicit drugs has fallen in the United States since the 1970s. In Colombia, cocaine production fell by 72% in the decade after 2001.

But with a UN General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS) on drugs on the horizon in April 2016, pressures are growing for significant reform of the approach the world has taken to drug control. The charges against the status quo are stacking up. As a recent report from Chatham House summarises, the “international drug control system has been ineffective in reducing overall demand, trafficking and production, as well as the price and purity of drugs – and therefore the size of the global market.” This market is (roughly) valued between US$350-$500 billion a year, making it one of the largest in the world. While production has decreased in some countries, continued demand means that it has only shifted to others (the “balloon effect”). Efforts to intercept and prevent the movement of drugs along transit routes have fared no better. Furthermore, critics point to the negative side-effects of the current approach, including growing levels of incarceration, human rights abuses and the loss of livelihoods for poor farmers involved in production.

Links to violence and insecurity

The links between the illicit drugs trade and conflict and insecurity are also pointed to as a major problem. In drug producing and transit countries, non-state groups that control the drug trade compete with violence and are often able to outgun state law enforcement. After Mexico announced its war on drugs in 2006, it was estimated that more than 70,000 people were killed in drug-related violence by 2013. In other places, such as Afghanistan and Colombia, the production and trade of drugs has been used to finance armed insurgencies, as well as fuelling corruption and undermining the capacity of state institutions and the willingness of politicians to serve the public. In extreme cases, such as in Guinea Bissau, organised crime, the security services and officials have become collectively complicit in the trade. By far the biggest profits associated with the drug trade however are accrued at the point of sale. The illicit drug trade in the US for example is worth up to US$143 billion per annum. Gangs regularly vie for control of this industry, sparking significant and repeated bouts of violence.

Across all of these contexts, violence is driven not only by non-state actors competing for control of the market, but also by the actions of law enforcement and security services seeking to destroy it. One study found that 82 percent of all statistical studies found a significant and positive association between the enforcement of drug laws and higher levels of violence. This should not be surprising. The mainstream approach to drugs has, after all, been termed the ‘war on drugs’. The balloon effect means that this war has shifted from country to country.

Nonetheless, the relationship between the drugs trade and violence is not straightforward. Countries such as Bolivia, Canada and Morocco produce drugs but have not been affected by high levels of violence. The same goes for China, Indonesia, Thailand and Vietnam, which are major production, transit and, increasingly, consumption countries. Sweden and the Netherlands take very different approaches to drugs, but drug-related homicides are not significantly different. Pre-existing vulnerabilities and other factors, therefore, must explain why the international trade in drugs is associated with different levels of violence in different contexts.

Influencing the agenda: a plan of action

Those seeking global reforms at UNGASS need to keep this in mind: the international drugs regime needs a radical overhaul and the reform agenda already has some impressive backers. However, so far many from the international peacebuilding community have been conspicuously absent from these debates. This is a major omission. It is essential that these debates account for the impact that any policy changes might have for local people living in regions of the world that are prone to high levels of violence.

Which medium- and long-term policy alternatives to the current drugs regime will be seriously considered by the international community is still open to question. As one study notes, “there is little agreement among those dissatisfied with the current regime on what an alternative drug policy regime should look like.” A few - not necessarily mutually exclusive - options include:

  • Shifting resources in consuming countries to public health and harm reduction
  • The decriminalisation of possession in consuming countries
  • Decriminalisation of small-scale production
  • Shifting resources to alternative development projects in producing countries
  • Full legalisation of the production, trade and consumption of some or all drugs
  • The status quo, i.e. keeping a lid on the market primarily through law enforcement

A first step could be to build on the scenario planning approach already adopted by the Organisation for American States, but to focus it on violent insecurity and conflict specifically. Using a political-economy model of conflict analysis in a range of different case studies, we need to assess what the likely impacts of different policy alternatives would be. For example:

  • Would decriminalisation of consumption have any positive impact on violence in countries like Afghanistan or Mexico?
  • What are the implications of full global legalisation on countries where patronage politics, structures of power or the livelihoods of many young men are tied up with the illicit trade in drugs?
  • What are the risks associated with suddenly injecting resources for alternative development into a conflict-affected state?
  • What does it mean for countries like Guinea-Bissau if we just leave things are they are?

Scenario mapping using conflict analysis tools would offer a useful indication of the potential risks and opportunities to be factored in. This could help countries to develop common positions based on awareness of the likely impacts of different approaches on conflict and violence in different regions.

Old sceptics, new champions?

Reform will need strong champions and persuasion of key sceptics within the international community. A power mapping on this issue would paint a complex picture. The position of the United States, once the major force behind the ‘war on...’ approach, may have softened somewhat. At the same time, China and Russia are facing increasing consumption of drugs in their countries and are firmly in favour of the status quo, if not an even more aggressive punitive approach. Brazil, also increasingly a consumer country, is no champion of policy reform. Indeed, the traditional distinction between producing and consuming countries, once synonymous with the north-south divide, no longer stands. The drugs trade has evolved alongside shifts in economic power and diplomatic influence, which will themselves make attaining global consensus a challenge.

The long road ahead

Saferworld has learned from its engagement on the UN Arms Trade Treaty and Sustainable Development Goals that the road toward achieving substantive policy reform on truly global issues is long and rough. Irrespective of the outcome, things will not change overnight at the 2016 UNGASS. Real change requires making the right evidence and analysis available to decision makers, mobilising potential champions and constructively engaging those with doubts. The voices of local people most affected by these international policies also need to be heard. Ultimately however, a more effective, less violent approach to dealing with drugs is a prize worth considerable effort by peacebuilding actors.

You can find Saferworld’s 2014 Issue Brief on the Illicit Drugs Trade and Conflict here


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It is essential that these debates account for the impact that any policy changes might have for local people living in regions of the world that are prone to high levels of violence.

Thomas Wheeler, Tim Midgley